A natural experiment in childhood cooperation: hide the hedgehog

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Years ago, when I was a much younger man, I worked in a rather unorthodox office. While I worked there, I helped with computer programming, accounting, wrote articles and sold books. I also got volunteered into babysitting the daughter of the owner of the business. This young girl of 7 years said she liked me because I was funny and that I could make a game of anything. Yet, I wasn’t formally her babysitter, I just fell into this role for an hour or two every so often a few times a week.

Over the years of my single life, I’ve had people tell me that I’d make a good father. They said that I listen well, that I am not afraid to show the kid inside of me, so I’m willing to play. And I’m humble enough to play. A good friend of mine also told me that he liked the way I played games with his kids.

Throughout my adult life, I found that I just naturally engaged with kids and got their attention. A neighbor once visited me in my apartment and brought her son with her. Her son got hold of the remote control for my TV and proceeded to play with it. With one simple and firm request, I asked for my remote control and he gave it back, stunning his mother.

And now I’m a father and I’m really enjoying life as a dad. Some months ago, my mother gave my kids two adorable little stuffed animals, hedgehogs. You can see them in the picture above. On some days, my kids like to keep the hedgehogs close and they playact with them. Some days we played catch with them since they’re really nice, fuzzy little balls.

But lately, they have taken an interest in playing a game we call, “Hide the Hedgehog”, or “Hide Hedgy”. We have two of them, but my kids haven’t figured out how to use plural nouns, at least, not yet. The game is simple. They cover their eyes and I hide the hedgehogs, and when I say “done”, they can uncover their eyes to look for their hedgehogs.

As a father, I’ve also become an observer of the development of my children. I’m watching how they learn language, how to cooperate and how to get things done that they want to do. In this game, they don’t really compete with each other, and more often than not, they will collaborate to find “hedgy” when I hide them too well.

If you notice in the picture, the hedgehogs look almost identical. Yet, somehow, my two daughters have made a distinction between the two, enough of a distinction that allows them to decide which hedgehog belongs to which person. They know just by looking at them which one is “mine”. This here is an interesting example of cooperation, too, in that they both agreed to ownership rights based upon minor differences in appearance between the two nearly identical toys. I still don’t know which one belongs to whom, but they know.

In the last few days that we’ve been playing “Hide the Hedgehog”, some other interesting dynamics showed up. For example, if one person found “the wrong” hedgehog, the other person would be upset for not letting her find her own hedgehog. So they each learned to respect the hunt of the other by not revealing the location of each others’ hedgehog during the hunt.

They also like to have me say, “warmer” or “colder” depending on their proximity to the toy they were seeking. If they were going far away from the hiding place, I’d say, “Now you’re freezing cold”, and if they were very close to a hiding place, I’d say, “Now you’re hot!”. And if I hid the toy too well, then I’d use some more precision in guiding them to the toy.

I also experimented with just hiding them out in the open, not offering any guidance. I also used some distraction to make them think I hid them in the opposite direction of where they were really were. I was setting expectations to see if they could set aside their expectations in order to actually find their toys. I wanted them to use their eyes, not what I was doing, to look for clues.

One aspect of being a father that I really enjoy is observing my kids’ natural capacity to cooperate. I saw the best example of this when my wife, my two kids and I, all visited Vietnam. While we were there, my kids met a cousin, Meow. They didn’t speak the same language, yet their impulse to play together was so strong, that even without a common verbal language, they still managed to play games together. They learned to cooperate, and to enjoy their time together. I learned after we got home, that Meow cried after we left. These kids had become great friends without a common language for a bond.

This is why I believe that cooperation is baked into our genes. I have seen it over and over again with my kids, other kids and even with me in all of my relations with others. As humans, we tend to err on the side of cooperation, and in so doing, we tend to prosper from our efforts when we cooperate. The sole purpose of language is for cooperation, though we can use it for other goals, ultimately, every communication is, in one way or another, a request for cooperation. It would seem then, that natural selection favored cooperation enough, to get us here.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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